We’ve all heard a lot about the new buildings that are innovatively paving the way for architects to shift towards a more sustainable future. But what about the old buildings that have been abandoned in an effort to combat the climate crisis? Learning about these structures and considering how their abandonment has helped ease the damage the built environment has on our planet can be an incredibly powerful way to envision what a more sustainable future looks like in the field of architecture. 

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Power Plant IM, located in Belgium, is one example of a structure abandoned in pursuit of sustainability. 

Lost in Time: Power Plant IM, Charleroi, Belgium - Sheet1
Power Plant IM_©Photographed by Alexey Marakhovets

Power Plant IM: Charleroi’s Primary Source of Energy 

Power Plant IM was originally constructed 100 years ago, in 1921, and it still sits today in Monceau-sur-Sambre- a small area within Charleroi, Belgium. Very soon after its construction, the facility quickly grew to become one of Belgium’s largest coal-fired power plants. At its peak, the power plant cooled an astonishing 480,000 gallons of water every minute through the use of its cooling tower which reduced the temperature of the water inside it with the wind blowing through openings at the base of the tower.

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Lost in Time: Power Plant IM, Charleroi, Belgium - Sheet2
Base of the Cooling Tower at Power Plant IM_©Photographed by Alexey Marakhovets

The station played a significant role during the interwar period, when it helped boost the Belgian industry, providing much-needed economic benefits. By 1977, the power plant acquired new features which allowed it to switch from coal to gas power. An expansion of the site also saw the station develop to be able to provide power to a huge number of people, businesses, and establishments. 

At this point, Power Plant IM had become the primary energy source in Charleroi. It became an iconic station renowned as highly valuable on a national level. It took until the 2000s for experts and the general public to reach the realization that the power station might be doing more harm than good.

The Abandonment of the Power Plant

In the early 2000s, Power Plant IM was revealed by a report to be solely responsible for 10% of Belgium’s total CO2 emissions. Considering the fact that the station was just a single power plant in one Belgian town, this was a significant revelation. After this seminal report was released, the news spread quickly, leading to public outrage which prompted Greenpeace to lead various protests against the structure in 2006. Along with the problem of CO2 emissions, pathogenic bacteria colonies began to develop, strengthened by the warmth and humidity of the tower’s gutters. 

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As these accusations became widely publicized, Power Plant IM was forced to shut down due to the shockingly detrimental impacts it was having on the environment and the potential effect the imminently growing bacteria could have on human health. With the power plant’s closure in 2007, all work was stopped abruptly, and the structure was abandoned

Lost in Time: Power Plant IM, Charleroi, Belgium - Sheet3
Power Plant IM_©Photographed by AndreasS

Power Plant IM Today

Today, fourteen years after its closure, the power plant still stands firmly in place. Since its abandonment, there have been multiple reports of the site being looted for metal, prompting security guards to often occupy the site. The power station appears largely intact structurally, with the walls and towers slowly becoming covered by moss. Tourists, photographers, and eager visitors still flock to the site in fascination with the distinct architecture of the abandoned units, often referring to it as a paradigmatic reflection of a dystopian world.

As of 2020, access to the site has grown more limited, with some staircases being fully removed and doors being locked, making it harder for tourists to enter the cooling tower itself. The site is no longer funded or preserved in any way, and it was declared in 2007 that there was no possibility for the structure to be revived or renovated. 

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Lost in Time: Power Plant IM, Charleroi, Belgium - Sheet4
Power Plant IM_©Photographed by Delphine Savat

The Future of the Power Plant

So, what will be the fate of this abandoned structure? Power Plant IM is said to have been scheduled for demolition, but no exact date or other details have been confirmed. The doors that welcomed visitors to the cooling tower have been closed on various occasions, leading the public to believe that the structure may soon be demolished. However, for the foreseeable future, both the tower and the station will remain standing. 

Despite the negative impacts the power plant had on the environment, it is undeniable that it was a central feature of the Belgian town of Charleroi which provided important economic benefits to the whole country, so it is possible that the structure may never be demolished in recognition of its cultural significance. 

As long as the units of the structure remain standing, Power Plant IM acts as a reminder of the steps we have taken so far to reduce CO2 emissions. The sight of its abandoned, derelict state can continue to encourage visitors to consider what else can be done to walk towards sustainability and away from environmental damage. 

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Author

Katie is an architecture student, writer, and lover of words. She envisions a future in which the positive impacts that buildings can have on humans and our planet are prioritised, and hopes to harness the power of language to amplify the stories being whispered through the world of design.

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